Project reinvents downtown block

Charleston Post and Courier
Robert Behre
July 7, 2008

Anyone who remembers the old Simonton School, or the grassy field that existed for years after the school was torn down, can return to the Radcliffeborough neighborhood today and get a profound sense for how much Charleston is changing.

This city block bounded by Morris, Smith, Marion and Jasper streets has been reinvented yet again, this time as Morris Square, a mix of 32 homes, town homes and condos, two commercial spaces, as well as a large park and an intimate plaza.

Morris Square is the first large-scale urban infill project by developer Vince Graham, who is probably best known for I’On, a New Urbanist neighborhood in Mount Pleasant whose traditional design has been featured in National Geographic magazine and many other places.

But there are some big differences: While I’On was hugely controversial and ultimately saw its apartment and retail aspect diluted by town politics, Morris Square is pretty much what Graham and his planners hoped it would be.

That’s partly because Graham had to work closely with the city. The development hinged on a land swap in which the city traded the existing Dereef Park for three separate parks to be built by Graham. They include the new Simonton Park (named after the old elementary school), the plaza and a future park to be built in the project’s final phase north of Morris Street.

The buildings’ traditional designs by Allison Ramsey Architects Inc. of Beaufort nicely complement the neighborhood’s 19th century architecture, but it’s doubtful they will satisfy preservationists who say most everything built in downtown Charleston these days is at least one story too tall.

The tall, slender nature of the buildings is driven by two realities: The land cost, which led Graham to push for a certain number of square feet, and flood rules, which don’t allow any living area lower than 14 feet above sea level. Smith Street, a former creek bed, is only about 4 feet above that mark.

The architects, and the city’s Board of Architectural Review, were aware of the height difference between Morris Square, where the tallest buildings rise up 49 feet, and the nearby homes, most of which are two stories (less than 30 feet).

The houses are designed so their taller sections often are recessed back from the street, particularly along Marion Street where the height disparity between the new and old is most apparent.

Even though flood rules dictate that no finished space be on the ground level, the design also tries to be as friendly to the street as possible. The homes have windows and doors along the sidewalk, even though there’s only parking or storage behind them. “We tried to make it appear like it was habitable space,” Graham says.

The two commercial spaces flank a new plaza with a limestone fountain. The only reason they’re allowed is because all their door and window openings can be covered by large steel panels stored just around the corner.

The plaza also has a somewhat roomier feel because Graham narrowed down Jasper and Morris streets slightly with paving meant to slow down cars.

“For me, a street can be parklike. Why shouldn’t it be?” Graham asks. “If a dog will feel comfortable sleeping in a street, then you’ve succeeded in street design.”

The 30-month-long construction, done by Chastian Construction, was challenging because it all had to be done at once. Even features as straightforward looking as Simonton Park are more complex than they appear. The elevated grassy area actually covers a series of drainage pipes that store the buildings’ stormwater runoff until the city’s drainage system can accept it.

While Morris Square is more urban than anything Graham has built before, it shares the same New Urbanist thinking by asking homeowners to accept greater density in return for better public spaces.

“You have a yard,” Graham says. “It’s just owned by everybody.”

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